The question “Why?!”

Friday

Ezekiel 18

File:Ezekiel by Michelangelo, restored - large.jpg

Michelangelo, the prophet Ezekiel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

The translators’ use of the words ‘parent’ and ‘child’ distorts the meaning of the Hebrew ‘father’ and ‘son’. It makes us think of families and small children rather than adults of different generations. We react instinctively with aversion to any talk of God taking the life of a child. But the sins the prophet has in mind are listed in verses we skip in the assigned reading: violence, murder, rape, robbery and usury. These are hardly the sins of children. They are crimes we ourselves think deserve death, even if we don’t support capital punishment.

4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

Still, the words sound harsh to us because our attention is drawn to the judgment that “the person who sins…shall die.” It suggests an image of a punishing God, striking people down. Since so many people seem so ready to take up that task on God’s behalf we rightly shirk from these ideas. But, again, the sins of which we are speaking are crimes that all would recognize as violating others and debasing their common life.

It is true that the prophet names idolatry with these crimes against persons. There was not a line between ‘religious’ acts and civic life and this can confuse us because we think of religion as private thoughts separate from public acts. But this is too narrow and too modern a notion of religion. The gods of our day often ask for child sacrifice; they simply disguise their claim. We are not spilling the blood of a child at the foundations of a city gate; we are neglecting or aborting them in the name of success, happiness, or as the price of our addictions. Or we are sending them off to war putting our faith, hope and trust in the power of violence. The character of Francis Underwood in the show “House of Cards” commits murder (and a host of other sin/crimes) because his ultimate faith is in power. The thing we worship is the fountain of the things we do.

In the time of the prophet, people took it for granted that the price of such fundamental betrayals of God and neighbor was death. In a society without prisons, what other punishments could be rendered? Compensation may apply for crimes of property, and cities of refuge could justly answer an accidental death – but how else can a community restrain violence? And where a community cannot hold people accountable, God must.

This is not to say that God strikes people down like Zeus throwing thunderbolts, but it does mean that such people are cut off from God, the source of life. It means that the consequences of their deeds come back upon their own heads. So the surprising word in this text, the word that is meant to engage us, is not the word ‘die’ but the word ‘only’: “only the person who sins that shall die.”

At a time and place when the people are blaming their troubles on the deeds of the previous generations (the parents ate the sour grapes and the children got the sour taste), God speaks a simple “No.” It doesn’t mean that every tragedy is God’s judgment on the victim. It means that these particular people at the dawn of the 6th Century BCE must take responsibility for the actions that have led them into exile. They are not the helpless victims of a judgment for the sins of others; they are responsible adults – and since their troubles are their own doing, their future is also in their own hands. They can change the direction of their lives: 31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”

God takes no pleasure in watching us suffer the consequences of our misplaced faiths, hopes and trusts. Indeed this is the anguished cry God in the prophet’s words “Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.”

It is God who, in the face of human sorrows, is asking the question “Why?!”

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